[Issue 3/November 2012]
A Ladder of Leaves
by Thomas Healy
Read by Shanti Perez.
Tracy leaned back from her workbench on her creaking chair and looked around the spare bedroom at all the cartons and boxes and ribbon spools scattered across the floor. She smiled. Brent, her former husband, would be beside himself if he could see what a mess the room was in now.
“You’re like a big old maple tree whose leaves fall all over the place,” she could hear him scolding her. “You never pick up anything.”
Still smiling, she bent back over the bench, unwound another spool of bright yellow nylon webbing, and cut 57 inches of it with the clunky pair of industrial scissors she’d purchased at a yard sale last summer. Then she cut a two inches longer strip of even brighter yellow grosgrain ribbon and began to sew it to the webbing. When that was done she melted the ends of the nylon webbing with a Bic lighter to help prevent it from fraying. All she needed to do now was make a handle to complete another four-foot dog leash. So far, this evening, she had made three four-foot training leads and one five-and-a-half foot lead.
By the end of the week she figured she would have twenty more leashes to sell at the Saturday Market down at the riverfront. A nurse’s aide, she worked five days a week at a convalescent home at the edge of town, but since her divorce, nearly a year ago, she had looked for ways to keep busy in the evening. Not one to sit in an easy chair and watch television night after night, she decided to heed her mother’s advice and find something constructive to do in her spare time. Always she had made leashes for her pets and those of her immediate family, so she started making more to see if others would be interested in purchasing them. To her surprise, she sold four leashes the first morning she leased a stall at the Market, and now she sold as many as a dozen and a half sometimes. The four-foot leash went for $12 and the longer one for $18. She didn’t make much money at the Market but she enjoyed being there and meeting different people and making new friends.
“Easy now, girl,” Tracy cautioned as her chocolate lab, Hershey, darted off the porch. “You’re always in such an almighty hurry, aren’t you?”
Hershey looked at her, continued across the lawn, straining a little against the striped leash attached to her collar.
Nearly every day, rain or shine, they walked together half an hour before dinner, usually as far as the old firehouse then back across the lumberyard and through the Safeway parking lot. People who worked at the grocery store mentioned they always knew what time it was when they saw her, which made her wince a little; she hated being so predictable. But she needed to stretch her legs, perhaps even more than Hershey did, so she continued to go out day after day.
Mrs. Henriquez, a neighbor, greeted Tracy as she neared the bus stop.
The older woman bent to one knee and gently stroked Hershey’s neck. “I see she’s got a new leash. You still selling leashes down at the riverfront?”
Nodding, she drew Hershey back from the crotchety woman.
“I’m going to have to get down there one of these Saturdays and buy a couple. I’m sure they’d make nice stocking stuffers for my nieces who love dogs almost as much as you.”
She repeated this nearly every time she spoke with Tracy, but—so far—she had yet to buy a leash and Tracy doubted if she ever would.
“I wonder what that ladder’s doing up there on the roof of the Ingram house?” she remarked after she got up from her knee. “No one’s been there for the past two months.”
Tracy glanced across the street at the sandstone house for sale on the corner. “What ladder?”
“There, dear, just beneath the chimney.”
Tracy smiled. “That isn’t a ladder. Those are maple leaves.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, squinting.
The old woman chuckled. “I guess things aren’t always what they appear to be.”
One by one, Tracy laid out half a dozen four-foot leashes near the top of the table in her stall, alternating stripes and solids, and below them half a dozen longer ones. Between the rows was a sign that listed the two prices and above the prices, in thick black ink, was printed “Durable, Comfortable Restraints for Your Pets.” On either side of the sign flickered a red votive candle, which she’d purchased from Ollie who had a stall full of candles and spices and scents at one end of her aisle.
“Lord, girl, do you always have to be set up before everyone else?” said Jamie, another vendor, as she lugged her duffel bag full of sweaters and quilts over to her stall.
Tracy smiled, unscrewing the cap on her thermos bottle. “I’m not always first.”
“It sure seems like it,” Jamie said.
To be sure, she arrived at the Market before most of the other vendors, but seldom was she the first one to set up. That distinction belonged to Gwen, the cupcake lady, who had been at the Market since its inception fourteen years ago. Gwen was also one of the last to leave, often patrolling the crowded aisles to see if anyone needed assistance.
“You going to sell all you have today?” Ali, who had a kebab stall, asked as he often did before the Market opened.
“I hope so,” Tracy said.
“Don’t hope, dear. Do.”
Nodding, Tracy poured herself a cup of chicory-scented coffee then screwed the cap back on the thermos bottle. She had barely taken a sip when “Sing Sing Sing” blared from the vintage record stall operated by Isaac at the other end of her aisle. She didn’t have to look at her watch to know that the Market was now open, because Isaac started playing music precisely at nine o’clock and didn’t stop until the Market closed at five.
“You’re just the person I need to see,” a heavyset man in a tweed saucer cap declared loudly.
Tracy, startled, looked up at the figure looming over her table. “I am?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he groaned. “My collie bolted into this busy intersection the other day when we were taking our morning constitutional and nearly got hit by a delivery truck. So I need a good, strong leash.”
“I’m sure you’ll be more than satisfied with one of these leashes,” she assured him.
“You guarantee satisfaction, do you?”
She winked. “I haven’t had any complaints so far, sir.”
“All right, little lady, you’ve made yourself a sale.”
She sold two more leashes in the next hour and a half, which was a little below her average, so she knew the pace had to pick up if she hoped to sell all of the leashes she’d brought. Sometimes, when sales were slow, she got out her tambourine and began to rattle it to attract customers. She suspected she might have to get it out today if business didn’t improve. That’s when Ali approached, saying, “What’s that?”
Tracy shut her eyes, listening, and heard a piercing yet distant shriek emanating from behind her aisle of stalls. “It must be one of Isaac’s damn records. He’s probably playing some primitive war chant someone recorded half a century ago.”
Half a minute later, Jamie rushed up to her table, her tangled blond hair nearly concealing her eyes. “You’re needed at the picnic grounds. Someone is in a lot of pain.”
Jamie shrugged. “Some shopper is all I know.”
The two women made their way through the crowded aisle, bumping into one person after another, until they got to the picnic area. There they found a small knot of people gathered around a woman screaming in agony, sprawled out on the grass, squirming around as if being jabbed by a sharp stick.
“What’s going on here?” Tracy said, staring at the tormented woman.
“Some girl threw a cup of coffee in her face,” said a young man with a skateboard tucked under his arm. “Some girl she’s never seen before and doesn’t know why she did it.”
Tracy knelt beside the writhing woman, told her she was a nurse as she pulled a clean handkerchief out of her back pocket and soaked it with water from the bottle she always carried in her fanny pack. She pried apart the woman’s hands from her face, which was as bright as a brick, then pressed the handkerchief against her skin. The woman continued to squirm for another minute or so before becoming nearly still. Tracy repeated to her all would be well.
The following Saturday, around noontime, the woman who’d had coffee thrown on her appeared at Tracy’s stall. She looked like a ghost, a white cotton bandage covering her face except for her eyes, spaces left open for her to breathe through her nose and mouth.
“I wanted to come by and thank you for what you did last Saturday,” the woman said.
“Well, I didn’t do very much I’m afraid.”
“Oh, no, the damp cloth you put on my face relieved some of the pain and, maybe more important, what you said helped calm me down.”
“I’m glad I was able to be of assistance.”
The woman extended her fragile hand. “I suppose I should probably introduce myself. Elaine Koppel.”
They shook hands, Elaine fumbling to set a paper plate of macaroon cookies on the leash-lined table.
“This isn’t much, I know, but I hope you enjoy them. Again, thank you for all you did, Tracy.”
Tracy nodded as Elaine turned to leave, but then Tracy decided to ask, “Did the police ever find out who threw the coffee at you?”
“No, not yet.”
“Well, I hope they catch whoever did it soon.”
“So do I.”
Nibbling a corner of one of the cookies, Tracy watched Elaine maneuver around a man on stilts before disappearing around the corner. She was surprised Elaine was already moving around in public—Tracy doubted she would ever leave home with such a huge bandage covering her face.
“I see you had a visitor,” Arnold—who sold Tibetan scarves, caps and shawls—observed as he stepped over to her stall.
“Yeah, that’s the lady who was attacked last week.”
“That’s the oddest thing.”
“What is?” Tracy said.
“I was talking to a customer last week who told me she was in the rest room when that woman came in holding a cup of coffee. She said no one else was there when she left, then a couple of moments later she heard the woman was claiming some girl threw coffee in her face.”
Tracy frowned, puzzled. “So what are you suggesting?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But it just doesn’t add up.”
“You don’t think she threw the coffee into her own face, do you?”
“As I said, I don’t know, Tracy.”
“If you ask me, that’s ridiculous.”
“Maybe so,” Arnold nodded, kicking the ground a little with the tip of his boot.
A slight woman with hoop earrings the size of lollipops approached, her face slender and pale, her hazel eyes almost as bright as her smile.
Tracy looked up and said, “Good morning.”
“Are you interested in purchasing a leash today?” She waved her left hand over a row of leashes.
The woman smiled a little more. “Don’t you recognize me, Tracy?”
She stared at the woman for a moment. “Do we know one another?”
“I am Elaine.”
It took a moment for the name to register then Tracy burst into a lavish grin. “Oh, my word, you’re beautiful.”
“I don’t know about that but I wanted to let you see what I look like without a hood over my face.”
“No, no, you are lovely,” Tracy insisted as she embraced Elaine.
“You’re too kind,” Elaine said, adding, “I’d buy a leash but I’m afraid I don’t have a dog.”
“I’m happy you came by again. How are you getting along?”
Casually Elaine grazed a hand across her left cheek. “Oh, my face is still a little tender, but thank God my eyes weren’t burned. Fortunately, at the time of the attack, I was wearing my reading glasses so my eyes were protected from the hot coffee.”
“Have the police found the girl who did it?”
Elaine shrugged, cocking a hand on her capri-clinging hip. “I doubt if they ever will, if you want to know my opinion.”
“It happened so fast I really wasn’t able to give them much of a description of the girl other than that she had long black hair.”
“That’s too bad. No one should get away with what was done to you.”
Pausing, Elaine looked around as two boys dashed behind her, screaming and waving sparklers. “It’s not true, you know, what some people are saying.”
“That there never was an attacker. That I did it to myself.”
“What?” Tracy decided not to reveal that she had heard the rumor.
“I don’t know how nasty rumors like that get started but it’s not true. I swear it isn’t,” she said, crossing her heart.
Tracy nodded in silence.
“You believe me, don’t you?” Elaine demanded.
Tracy nodded again.
“Why would I, why would anyone for that matter, do such a crazy thing?”
Elaine picked up one of the leashes from the table and held it up to the sunlight, before continuing, “Sometimes I felt as if I had an invisible leash around my throat when I was married because I followed my former husband around like a little puppy dog. Wherever he went, I was right beside him. For most of the time we were together, he liked me always being there with him, depended on it, I believe, but then things changed and he got tired of my presence and left the house one morning and never returned. The bastard.”
The longer Elaine spoke the more Tracy came to believe she had thrown the coffee into her own face, hoping, Tracy assumed, for some sympathy after all the heartache she had suffered since being abandoned by her husband. But all Elaine felt was pity for the troubled woman whose denial was as strained as the leash now wrapped around her left wrist.